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NKU faces major challenge against Louisville shot-blocking duo Tuesday night in NIT opener

By Don Owen
NKyTribune reporter

Take a quick look at the latest NCAA statistics, and it’s no surprise opponents have a tough time scoring inside against the University of Louisville.

The Cardinals are fourth nationally in blocked shots, averaging 6.2 rejections per game. Louisville 7-footer Anas Mahmoud has blocked 99 shots this season and ranks No. 7 in the nation with 3.3 rejections per contest.

Louisville 7-footer Anas Mahmoud (left) has blocked 99 shots and ranks No. 7 in the nation with 3.3 rejections per contest.

In addition, 6-foot-10 Ray Spalding has swatted away 54 shots this season. That shot-blocking ability will make scoring in the paint a major challenge for Northern Kentucky University on Tuesday night when the Norse visit Louisville for the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament at 7 p.m.

NKU is 22-9 overall and won the Horizon League regular-season title with a 15-3 record. Louisville is 20-13 overall, and the Cardinals tied for eighth place in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 9-9 mark.

Louisville is seeded No. 2 in its NIT bracket, while NKU is the No. 7 seed. The winner advances to meet either No. 3 seed Middle Tennessee State or No. 6 seed Vermont.

Here are some keys to Tuesday night’s game.

VERSATILE PERFORMERS: Louisville junior forward Deng Adel averages a team-leading 15.4 points per game. Adel has made 48 shots from 3-point range and is also an outstanding passer (91 assists). He also gets to the line, having converted 78 percent of his team-leading 123 free throws.

NKU counters with junior forward Drew McDonald, who averages a team-leading 16.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. The Newport Central Catholic product has also buried 53 shots from 3-point range this season and has 70 assists. He also has 17 double-doubles this season, which is the 14th-most in the nation.

BALLARD REUNION: Former Louisville Ballard standout guards Quentin Snider and Lavone Holland II will play big roles Tuesday night on opposite sides of the court. Snider averages 12.2 points and has made a team-leading 63 shots from 3-point range for Louisville. Holland is scoring 13.8 points per contest and leads NKU with 138 assists.

IN THE PAINT: In addition to his shot-blocking skills, Spalding averages 12.3 points and is shooting 53.9 percent from the field. Mahmoud averages 7.2 points and has made 55.6 percent of his shots from the field.

NKU sophomore forward Carson Williams is converting 61.0 percent of his field goals, and he averages 12.3 ppg.

FAMILIAR FACE: NKU sophomore guard Tyler Sharpe played at Louisville last season. Sharpe has emerged as a key performer for the Norse, averaging 6.8 points per contest. He has drained 46 shots from 3-point range and made big defensive plays for NKU since becoming a major contributor in the rotation. Sharpe knows the shooting background in the KFC Yum! Center better than anyone on the NKU roster.

NKU freshman Jalen Tate (right) is one of the top defenders in the Horizon League. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

WATCH THESE PLAYERS: NKU redshirt freshman guard Jalen Tate is regarded as one of the best defenders in the Horizon League. His performance against Louisville will be crucial as the Cardinals feature several talented wing players. Norse senior forward Jordan Garnett averages 6.6 points per contest and is one of the team’s defensive stalwarts. Sophomore forward Dantez Walton has provided the Norse with outstanding minutes the last two weeks, while sophomore guard Mason Faulkner could also be a major factor against Louisville with his defense and outside shooting.

Louisville sophomore forward V.J. King has started all 33 games and averages 8.7 points per game. Sophomore guard Ryan McMahon has knocked down 35 shots from 3-point range and provides perimeter scoring off the bench for the Cardinals.

THE HOME COURT: Louisville is 14-5 at home this season. The Cardinals are 9-1 against non-conference opponents at the KFC Yum! Center. NKU is 8-5 on the road this season.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Louisville is very tough to beat at home. The Cardinals had top-ranked Virginia beat two weeks ago in the KFC Yum! Center but watched a four-point lead with one second remaining evaporate in a stunning 67-66 loss to the Cavaliers.

The shot-blocking duo of Mahmoud and Spalding will present a major challenge for NKU. Will the Norse be able score in the paint against the taller Cardinals? Or can NKU draw fouls by getting the ball inside to McDonald and Williams? Those two questions will be keys to the game.

Louisville averages 76.2 points per game, while NKU holds the opposition to just 66 points per contest. The Norse have also limited opponents to 40.9 percent shooting from the field, and the Cardinals convert 45.5 percent of their shots. Something has to give here.

This is the first game between the two programs that counts (NKU and Louisville twice played exhibitions when the Norse were in Division II), and it comes with a national television audience watching on ESPN.

NIT EXPERIMENTATION: The NIT will feature four rules modifications:

• The three-point line will be extended by approximately 1 foot 8 inches to the same distance used by FIBA for international competition (22 feet 1.75 inches).

• The free throw lane will be widened from 12 feet to 16 feet, consistent with the width used by the NBA.

• The games will be divided into four 10-minute quarters as opposed to two 20-minute halves. Teams will shoot two free throws beginning with the fifth foul of each quarter.


• The shot clock will reset to 20 seconds after an offensive rebound instead of the full 30 seconds.

NOT NIT-HAPPY: Saint Mary’s put together one of the finest regular seasons in program history with a 28-5 record that saw the Gaels rise as high as 11th in the Associated Press Top 25. Despite stellar credentials, the Gaels’ lack of signature wins and an upset loss in their conference tournament ultimately forced them off the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s final bracket.

Saint Mary’s came in 25th in the final AP Poll of the season, adding credence to head coach Randy Bennett’s assertion the committee’s new system of drawing teams is stacked against programs in mid-major conferences.

“One-hundred percent,” Bennett told ESPN when asked whether the NCAA’s switch to a quadrant system to measure tournament worthiness is hurting mid-majors. “Explain to me how the quadrant system is scored? There’s the problem. I don’t know why they do anything. I will tell you that they won’t tell you how they keep score.”

Middle Tennessee State was also snubbed by the NCAA Tournament committee despite a 24-7 overall record and a 33 RPI.

WHAT: Northern Kentucky (22-9) at Louisville (20-13), NIT first round
WHEN: Tuesday, March 13, 7 p.m.
WHERE: Louisville, Ky.
ARENA: KFC Yum! Center (22,090 capacity)
RADIO: WKRC 550 AM
TELEVISION: ESPN
SERIES: First meeting

2018 NIT BRACKET

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